Michaela Strachan on Walking with Dinosaurs and a lifetime of animal adventures
As the technologically dazzling Walking with Dinosaurs show prepares to stomp into Belfast this weekend, presenter Michaela Strachan tells Gail Bell about her crash-course in palaeontology and why animals will always be her passion
MICHAELA Strachan has spent a long career being upstaged by animals – so she knows exactly what's in store this weekend when she'll be surrounded by some of the most colossal creatures ever to roam the Earth.
The award-winning TV presenter will be centre stage "as the only human" in the globally acclaimed Walking with Dinosaurs spectacular in Belfast and says she will feel very small indeed when overshadowed by the real stars of the show – 18 life-sized dinosaurs.
Having carved a successful niche fronting wildlife programmes, the show is one of the rare times the presenter will have worked with 'non live' animals, but the sheer scale of animatronic versions of Stegosaurus, Raptor, Tyrannosaurus-Rex and Brachiosaurus – the latter measuring 11 metres tall and 17 metres from nose-to-tail – make it terrifyingly real for the still-bubbly 52-year-old blonde.
In this £15 million-plus production in which the dinosaurs are operated by invisible skilled puppeters, she takes on the role of paleontologist, Huxley, and although she learned her "a rather long script" thoroughly, catching up on millions of years of geology and fossil history proved to be a steep learning curve.
And, although they say you should never work with animals or children, Strachan has always been happy to be eclipsed by both.
"The kids who come to the show know everything there is to know about dinosaurs," she says down the line from Leeds, where Walking with Dinosaurs was showing as part of an extensive tour set to finish in London at the end of December.
"Their knowledge is extraordinary, so I always need to be on my toes. I think everyone is so obsessed by dinosaurs because the reality of them is really difficult to grasp.
"This is an extraordinary show, very hi-tech and very realistic and it's a bit odd being the only human on stage. There is one puppeteer, a driver, inside each dinosaur, who communicates via radio with 'voodoo puppeteers' who stand out of sight, using different devices to control dino movement.
"It's a bit of talking, a bit of history, but really the kids just want to see the dinosaurs do their thing."
Although not particularly "obsessed" by dinosaur fights in her own childhood, the Really Wild Show and Springwatch presenter has conquered a number of real battles in her professional and personal life, including a double mastectomy following a devastating breast cancer diagnosis four years ago.
Michaela was diagnosed following a routine mammogram early in 2014 and had reconstructive surgery the same year.
As a former dancer who trained in musical theatre, she believes a high level of fitness helped in her recovery – as well as a busy work schedule which still keeps her travelling for a large part of the year.
"I have a map on my wall at home and it is covered in pins marking the countries where I have filmed, but there is still a large part uncovered, including swathes of central Africa and South America," she says.
"So there's still work to be done."
The presenter lives near Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, with long-time partner and cameraman, Nick Chevallier, son Ollie and stepchildren, Tom, Sam and Jade – so leaving the family behind on filming assignments across the world is something everyone has grown used to.
"I seem to be travelling more than ever these days and on this tour I'm away from home for 10 weeks, but the family have come over, which is great," says Michaela.
"But, I can't tell you how much I've missed our rescue dog, Rio. I can't wait to have a cuddle."
An empathy with all kinds of animals is a given for the woman who first hit television screens in 1986 as a presenter on TVam's Saturday morning kids show The Wide Awake Club before she joined forces with Pete Waterman in cult late night music show, The Hitman and Her.
Although she spent 10 years on Countryfile and has presented The Orangutan Diaries, Elephant Diaries, Shark Encounters, Springwatch, Winterwatch and Autumnwatch among others, it is still The Really Wild Show which holds some of her favourite memories.
"I presented The Really Wild Show for 15 years and it was my passion," she recalls.
"For a children's programme, I think we made some very brave documentaries and tackled big subjects related to animal welfare, such the bushmeat trade in Cameroon and the bear bile industry in China.
"We definitely helped develop little campaigners of the future and it was a real privilege to be part of that. I still meet people now who come up to me and say they are working in conservation because of The Really Wild show which seems to have influenced many future careers."
Still the campaigner herself, Michaela remains passionate about animal welfare. One of the issues she and her partner have been involved in recently is raising awareness of 'canned hunting' in Africa where lions are "basically bred in captivity to be shot".
"Tourists have their picture taken with an orphan lion cub and then the next stage is taking a 'walk' with lions which were cuddled as cubs," she explains.
"Then, when they're too big for that, they're sold on to hunting farms and people pay a fortune to hunt them and have their heads mounted on walls. It's such a bonkers thing to do.
"There are no game farms in Cape Town, where we live, but another issue closer to home is the dramatic decline of the African penguin, which is a big draw for tourists here.
"It's a complex issue, but their food source has moved and they have to swim a lot further to get fish. That, along with human encroachment and oil spills have made it a difficult problem to solve."
Michaela first discovered her bond with animals as child when looking after pet hamsters, cats and dogs, but the love hasn't always been a two-way street:
"I've had a few scary moments over the years, but I would say the one that stands out is being bitten by a lemur in Madagascar during filming of The Really Wild Show," she recalls.
"The bite itself wasn't the scary thing, but there was some concern that those particular lemurs had rabies – and again, that wasn't the scary bit.
"I went back to the UK to get the jab and waited three hours to be seen in casualty. Then the nurse came and laid the bed out and I asked her, 'Why are you laying the bed out?'
She consulted her notes and said, 'Oh, 'bitten by a lemur' – I thought it said 'broken femur'. Now that, to me, is scary!"
:: Walking with Dinosaurs is at the SSE Arena, Belfast this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For showtimes and booking information, contact the box office on 028 9073 9074 or go online at SSEarenabelfast.com